At the Foot of Mount Baker, fed by the mineral rich waters of the Skagit River, Penn Cove lies in the protective rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains. This forms the perfect conditions for a primordial soup of nutritious algae and plankton to grow. This natural concoction nurtures the indigenous Penn Cove Mussels that thrive in the pristine, clean waters. It is home to Penn Cove Shellfish, the largest commercial mussel farm in North America, which cultivates more than 2 million pounds of mussels each year.
According to Millie Goebel of Penn Cove Shellfish, the company was founded in 1975 by the Jefferds family. The father of current owners Ian and Rawle Jefferds was retiring from the military and looking to start a retirement business. While living abroad, the Jefferds family had been exposed to mussels as a regular seafood product. After they moved to Seattle, the family chartered a boat to explore Puget Sound, looking for the perfect destination to start a mussel farm. They arrived in Coupeville, and, with the densely populated mussels growing on the docks, and they knew it was the perfect place to grow mussels.
Celebrity chefs, such as Martha Stewart, Bobby Flay and Andrew Zimmern, sing the praises of Penn Cove Mussels, which are very distinguishable by the taste. And their opinions are backed up by the international competitions these mussels have won.
“They have beautiful plump meat with a sweet buttery flavor,” says Goebel. “The mussels’ meat is so plump that it can fill almost the entire shell. Our mussels eat so much wonderful natural algae that our flavor is much sweeter than others.”
Seattle restaurateur and chef Tom Douglas happened to be a big fan. “Dropping in on a seaplane from downtown Seattle is my favorite way, and the quickest, to get my hands on those sweet, creamy, plump mussels from Penn Cove.” Douglas serves the delicate morsels in his restaurants, often bathed in olive oil and accented with slivers of pungent garlic, crushed espelette peppers, fistfuls of fresh herbs and a heavy squeeze of fruity lemon.
With a tagline like “Always Fresh from the Water—Not the Warehouse,” it is no wonder the mussels are so popular. Goebel attributes it to the freshness of the product. “All shellfish is harvested per order. We do not want to harvest more than we need and be wasteful. Shellfish is best when stored in the water because the product is able to retain its meat plumpness, feed on algae and stay fresh. Once shellfish is pulled from the water it begins to metabolize its stored fats and sugars and the taste of the mussels begins to change. Our mussels are harvested and shipped within 24 hours, allowing us to have the freshest shellfish in the marketplace. Our mussels can be harvested one afternoon and be on your dinner plate in New York City the following evening,” she said.
Another chef who is a big fan is Chef Andreas Wurzzrainer. The owner of Christopher’s on Whidbey can take a short walk from his restaurant and view the mussel farm from the Coupeville Wharf. “I have prepared mussels from many other countries in the world, but in over three decades of cooking I have never found a mussel as tender and sweet as our local Penn Cove mussels. They are truly some of the best in the world.”
In 1996, Penn Cove joined with Coast Seafoods Company the largest oyster farm in America to form Penn Cove Shellfish, LLC. Now, in addition to Penn Cove mussels, the company farms Mediterranean mussels, Manila clams and Pacific oysters. The company also distributes many varieties of oysters from allied growers in the region.
Learn more about travel to Whidbey Island at whidbeycamanoislands.com.